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THE original name of Park Street was Sentry or Centry Street. As early as 1673 its upper portion, running northwesterly, was described as the way leading from the Common or Training Field to Sentry (now Beacon) Hill, on whose summit stood the tall mast which served as the great alarm tower of the town. Near its top was suspended an iron cresset, wherein combustible materials were deposited. At intervals along the sides of the mast were foot supports, to facilitate the ascent to the cresset. The first Beacon was erected in accordance with a vote passed by the General Court in March, 1635, whereby it was ordered that such a warning signal should be set up on Centry or Centinel Hill. The vote read as follows: “It is ordered that there shall be a Beacon sett on Centry Hill at Boston, to give notice to the country of any danger; and that there shall be a ward of one person kept there from the first of April to the last of September; and that upon the discovery of any danger, the Beacon shall be fired, and an alarum given; as also messengers sent by that towne where the danger is discovered, to all other townes within their jurisdiction.” The early settlers of Boston were apprehensive of possible attacks by the Indians in their neighborhood. Such fears, however, proved groundless; although many of the villages farther inland were not so fortunate. A piece of land, six rods square, on the summit of the hill, was set apart by the Town for the Beacon, with a passageway from the Common thereto.1
According to a recent writer, the erection of a potential torch on the summit of Beacon Hill was a noteworthy event. Thereby the Beacon became a landmark in both the physical and historical landscape. But during the long period of its existence, it does not appear that any warning light was ever displayed from its cresset. It is doubtful, in the words of one historian, if there was ever a spark of fire in its iron pot. The Beacon was maintained in its original position for more than one hundred and fifty years, although not in commission during two or three comparatively short periods. Here follows an extract from the Selectmen’s “Minutes,” April, 1741: “Whereas for many years past there has been erected a Beacon on Beacon Hill; which in the winter past was blown down; the Question was put whether it would not be for the benefit of the Town to have a new one erected on the same place?” This was decided in the affirmative; and twelve pounds were allowed Mr. William Bowen for the purpose. Accordingly a new mast of white oak was set up in the following October. The Beacon was destroyed again during a tempest in November, 1789, and was soon after replaced by the Beacon Hill Monument, which was built, as inscribed on one of its tablets, “to commemorate the train of events which led to the American Revolution, and finally secured Liberty and Independence to the United States.”
The destruction of the old landmark was announced in the “Independent Chronicle,” December 3, 1789, as follows: “The Beacon which was erected on Bacon Hill during the last war, to alarm the country in case of an invasion of the British into this town, was on Thursday night last blown down.”
This was the first monument of its kind in the country. It was a plain Doric column of brick, covered with stucco, and standing on a stone pedestal. The monument was surmounted by a gilded wooden eagle. It was designed by the eminent architect, Charles Bulfinch, and was his first important work, which owed its existence to his patriotic fervor and energy. This monument was taken down in 1811, when the summit of the hill was levelled. In 1898 a reproduction in stone was erected on the same site under the auspices of the Bunker Hill Monument Association, and the original inscribed tablets were placed upon its four sides. It has been said that the name of Beacon Hill is as sacred to the people of New England as was that of Mount Sinai to the Israelites. Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch, the learned conveyancer, in one of his “Gleaner Articles,” gave a description of the Bea-con as it appeared to an intelligent merchant during his boyhood days in the year 1787. “At that time,” he wrote, “there was a stone basement on which rested four horizontal timbers crossing each other in the centre. From this centre rose as high a mast as could be procured; and the mast was supported by braces. It was surmounted by a tar-barrel, which being set on fire in case of danger, was to serve as a beacon to the country around. There was an apparatus of ladders for ascending to this tar-barrel; but fortunately it was never found necessary to give this warning signal. The hill was of a very peculiar conical shape, and the boys were accustomed to throw balls up as far as possible toward its summit, the balls rebounding from it, as from a wall.” The original Beacon Hill was described by another correspondent as a grassy hemisphere, so steep that one could with difficulty mount its sides; descending with a perfectly regular curve to the streets on the south, west, and north. On the east it had been encroached upon, and the contour was broken. Just opposite to the end of Coolidge Avenue, on Derne Street, there was a flight of wooden steps, ten or fifteen in number, leading partway up the hill. Above that point one had to climb by means of the foot-holes that had been worn in the surface along a wide path trodden bare by the feet, to the top, where there was a space, some fifty feet square, of level ground. In the midst of this space stood the monument. Descending by the south side, one followed a similar rough gravel path to another flight of plank steps, leading down to the level of Mount Vernon Street, and terminating at about the position of the house numbered thirteen on that street. “The sport of batting the ball up the hill, and meeting it again on its descent, was played by some boys; but it was not so easy a game as one might suppose, on account of the difficulty of maintaining one’s footing on the hillside, which was so steep as to require some skill even to stand erect upon it.” Beacon Hill, which was regarded as quite a high mountain by the early settlers, is still the most prominent height of land within the City limits. The top of the State-House Dome is said to be about on a level with the highest point of the middle peak of the original three summits of Sentry Hill. The Beacon Hill of to-day has been described as “a gentle elevation, crowned upon its single summit by the State House.”
Yet whoever walks briskly from the Boylston Street Subway Station up the incline to Joy Street, without pausing to take breath, may realize that Beacon Hill remains a considerable elevation. Shortly before the Revolution, the hill was covered with small cedar trees and native shrubbery, with here and there a cow-path, through which the herds ranged unmolested. 2
It does not appear that the old Beacon Hill Monument was a very imposing structure. It was described by a traveller who visited Boston in 1792 as “a ridiculous obelisk, if such the thing may be called, which is placed on the highest point of the hill, by way of ornament. It puts one in mind of a farthing candle, placed in a large candlestick.”3
The exact date of the Monument’s removal is fixed by a written statement preserved in the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, and bearing the signature of the person who superintended the operation. Its wording is as follows:
Boston. July the 8th; 1811. At three o’clock this afternoon I lowered the Eagle from the Beacon Hill Monument. At the very same time the next. day I undermined and dropped the Monument from the hill; and no harm was done to any person.
ATHERTON HAUGH STEVENS
One of the earliest writers about Boston, William Wood, described Beacon Hill as “a high mountain, with three little rising hills on top of it; wherefore it is called Tramount.” Historians have definitely located these peaks as follows: the middle and tallest one, Centry or Beacon Hill, was situated behind the present State House. Westward of this was a lesser elevation, known as Copley’s Hill, and later Mount Vernon. The eastern spur was called Cotton, afterward Pemberton Hill. These three hills, forming Trimountain, “extended through the centre of the peninsula, from the head of Hanover Street to the water beyond the State House”; that is, presumably, to about the line of Charles Street.4
The laying-out of this thoroughfare from Park Square to Leverett Street, near the present Charles River Dam, was completed in 1809. In June, 1812, the Town authorities voted “to have the Street next to the Ropewalks at the bottom of the Common raised, so as to form a foot-walk, six feet wide, with a row of timber on each side, and filled between with gravel, as a further protection against high tides.” At such times it appears that the water of the Charles River extended from near the corner of Cambridge and West Cedar Streets, past Beacon Street, and up the latter for about one hundred and forty feet. When workmen were excavating for the cellar of the house numbered sixty-one on this street, they are said to have encountered shells and other evidence of a riverbed.
As early as 1758 the preservation of Beacon Hill became a subject for serious consideration. Thomas Hodson, an unaccommodating citizen, and others, persisted in encroaching on the northern side, thus impairing its symmetry. In May, 1764, a committee of townspeople, appointed for the purpose, reported that they had viewed the premises, and that in their opinion it was necessary for the preservation of the hill “to have the Highway that runs between the land of Thomas Hancock Esq; and the land of Mr. William Mullineux, and the avenues thereto, shut up, and sown with Hay Seed, till it is brought to a good Sword. And whereas the said Hill is in very great danger of being destroyed by Thomas Hodson and others digging gravel on his lot; they are of Opinion that it would be advisable to apply to the Assembly for an Act to prevent the destruction of Beacon Hill.”
This hill, as it appeared toward the close of the eighteenth century, was described by President Timothy Dwight, of Yale College, as almost a waste tract. In the year 1796 it was bought by three citizens of Boston; its irregularities and roughnesses were removed at great expense, its western declivity cut down, and a field of about thirty acres was transformed into a smooth tract, affording ideal building sites. Soon after this field was partly covered with pretentious houses. And in splendor of building and nobleness of situation, the summit of Beacon Hill, in the opinion of the above-named writer, was unrivalled on this side of the Atlantic. The western side of the hill, previously regarded as suburban, where wild roses and barberry bushes throve, was thus completely transformed; and this result was largely due to the enterprise and business sagacity of Harrison Gray Otis and Jonathan Mason, who represented the Mount Vernon proprietors. Various modifications of the early name, Centry Hill, appear in old deeds and in the Town Records. Among these are found the following: Sentry, Centery, Center, and Centinel Hill. The name Century Street also appears, meaning Centry or Park Street.
The removal of the original three peaks of Beacon Hill reduced it to about one half of its former height. But, as has been well said, the Common remains a distinctive feature of the topography of Boston; and the fact that it has been preserved with comparatively little change from almost the beginning of the settlement renders it the more precious. Originally purchased from William Blackstone for thirty pounds sterling, its value is officially estimated at this time at forty-eight million dollars, or 320,000 times the amount paid for it in the year 1634. But as a health resort the value is incapable of estimation. A promenade within its borders, especially around the Frog Pond when children are frolicking thereabout, has been recommended for persons of a melancholy disposition. Even a nervous headache may be relieved, according to one authority, by watching the laborers in their task of combing the grass during the annual spring cleaning.5 “Will it be believed,” wrote an admiring tourist many years ago, “that this enchanting Common takes its name from having been a common cow pasture, and is actually given up to that animal? “6 A Londoner who sojourned at Boston in the autumn of 1920 declared that Beacon Hill had for him an irresistible attraction. “And then Beacon Street,” he wrote, “looking out, as it does, on a green Common, where Boston has the courage to saunter; and not go rushing with firm-set jaw up from the turmoil of Tremont Street, or down into it; intent on nothing but getting somewhere, and quite oblivious of the way it gets there.... And the narrow streets! The scarcely more than lanes, which at noontime are choked with good-natured strollers, who have the right of way, and cause no end of inconvenience to the poor motorist, who is struggling to understand the gyrations of the agile marionettes of the law; and the shopping streets, whose sidewalks are not wide enough to hold their travellers, might have been transported straight across from that part of London known as the City: the old, old part, paved with cobble-stones, which used to echo with the click-clack of hoofs prancing before some ornate, lumbering post-chaise.”
Long before the motor car was dreamed of as a possible means of transportation, it appears that the traffic in Boston’s thoroughfares rendered downtown pedestrianism somewhat strenuous. What matters it to a lover of bygone days, wrote Edmund Quincy, in the year 1837, that the din of busy life is in his ears; that he is jostled at every turn by eager traffickers; and that his escape with life from the thundering throng of drags and stage-coaches is a standing miracle?
1 The Memorial History of Boston, I, 275.
2 S. A. Drake, Landmarks.
3 Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, 1871.
4 The State House, page 5.
5 H. B. Williams, The Common. 1842.
6Ali Bey, Journal of Travels in North America.